Welcome to Western

Professor offers a sentence to the letter

By Douglas Keddy

His journey began with a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded project examining cultures that didn’t use alphabets. The resulting book was the exact opposite.

Modern Languages and Literatures professor Laurence de Looze had been seduced by the letters.

They had, quite naturally, been there all along but, much like breathing, tend to be overlooked despite their ubiquity in our daily lives. de Looze set out to restore some of their meaning.

“Every culture is really attached to its orthography (the conventions for writing that include spelling and punctuation),” de Looze said. “It’s ingrained in our culture.”

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In The Letter & The Cosmos, published by the University of Toronto Press in July, de Looze examines how the alphabet has, for thousands of years, shaped the Western view of the world. “Were people just excited to be able to write shopping lists, or to write down the great epics?” he asked with a chuckle. “Was the alphabet a game-changer or simply a utilitarian tool?”

The book deals primarily with the rise of the Roman alphabet as a global monolith that continues to expand its influence today. “Romans held more lands through language than through arms – and they rose and fell together,” de Looze said, reiterating a point originally made by Geoffroy Tory in his 1529 book, Champ Fleury.

Since the Phoenicians 3,000 years ago, the alphabet has meant far more than its simple shapes belie. “The ABCs were a moral text,” de Looze said, adding that the alphabet has conditioned how Western culture views its reality. Dating back to the Ancient Greeks, for example, it has not only been tied to religion, it has been representative of it.

The Letter & The Cosmos weaves through Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and on into the Middle Ages, in which the alphabet was viewed as the embodiment of God and all his creation. Christ’s claim he is the “Alpha and Omega” – which are the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet – in the Book of Revelation, for example, is interpreted as an implication He is both the alphabet and everything that has ever been created from it – not just the Bible, but also the whole of the Cosmos.

The alphabet was also seen as analogous to numerical relationships of the Cosmos, and vice-versa, providing an interesting tension between science and religion. The Greeks and Romans expanded this relationship between the alphabet and numbers by creating their numerals from letters.

During the Middle Ages, too, each letter was imbued with its own inherent meanings, and often delicately illustrated to tell a moral story readers needed to decode. This allowed illiterate members of society to find salvation even when they were unable to read the Bible. As examples, the letter ‘T’ was understood to represent the cross upon which Christ was crucified; the letter ‘Y’ was understood to represent a fork in the road – the choice between good and evil.

Even the act of reciting the alphabet took on religious overtones, de Looze said. “The alphabet was referred to as ‘La Croix de Dieu,’ or ‘God’s Cross,’ and children would cross themselves before reciting it.”

By the Renaissance, however, society’s view of the alphabet had become secularized and letters were compared to the human form – particularly Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. As societies entered the 19th and 20th centuries, letters began to steadily lose their individual meanings altogether. We began to focus on words, not letters. “These days, letters seem to be more seen as sources of content to be consumed without their individual meanings,” de Looze added.

Just don’t expect our reliance on the alphabet to end anytime soon.

“A Westerner’s view of the world is conditioned by the alphabet at a very young age – it’s part of our socialization,” de Looze said, pointing to the presence of illustrated letters ringing nearly every first-grade classroom.

While our writing has taken on new forms with the advent of digital technologies, the zeros and ones of binary code fired off into the ether are still reminiscent of the ties between numbers and letters identified by the Ancient Greeks thousands of years ago.

If anything, we’re using the alphabet more than ever, even if we don’t take the time to think about it. In fact, with the dominant spread of language, the United States has taken over the world culturally and alphabetically, de Looze said.

“It’s kind of a melting pot,” he added, as culture is transferred to new societies through language they, in turn, influence ours.

From every corner, these random characters continue to shape how we think about, and convey, nearly everything.

“The alphabet is a consistent lens through which we view the world,” de Looze concludes. “It’s amazing a set of 22-26 arbitrary symbols can express anything you ever want to express.”